It was the strangest thing. There we were, laughing together on the terrace. Bathing in the orange light of sunrise, and yet, I had no idea what either of us were laughing at.
This one night not so long ago, I was up late working on an essay, when I heard a knock on my bedroom window. Given that it was 3am, this worried me slightly. I surreptitiously peered through a gap in the curtains and saw my friend Mat standing in the back yard, chewing on a finger nail and looking distinctly disheveled.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Shhhhh, I’ll explain in a minute, let me in.”
“I’ll open the front door”
“No, no. Let me through the window, I don’t want anyone to see me”
Reluctantly I acquiesced. Mat was frantic, mumbling incoherently about walking a dog and judging from the eyes, almost certainly as high as a kite. Something serious had clearly happened, but I was having difficulty finding out what.
“Listen, I really need you to come with me now, I found something in Fowler’s woods. I need to show you it.”
“What? What is it?”
“I can’t tell you. I have to show you.”
“It’s three in the morning Mat, can’t it wait?”
Clambering out of my own bedroom window as per Mat’s request, This familiar foreboding feeling came over me; like I was about to make an absolutely massive mistake. It was freezing cold outside and Mat was wearing a flimsy little t-shirt. We walked through town, navigating the drunken, often hostile masses as they staggered from establishment to establishment, and eventually we made our way down to the riverbank. From there, it got pretty dark pretty quickly, and I began to lose faith that Mat had any idea where this thing was. But after about 20 minutes of clambering over fences, and trudging through mud, we reached it. At first it seemed like a couple of bin liners. I was about ready to turn around and head home, but Mat used a phone to shine some light on it. Slowly, we crept closer until I eventually realized that we were looking at a sleeping bag; a sleeping bag which appeared to have a something body-shaped inside of it.
“Jesus Christ, wh… what is it?”
“I found it earlier, when I was walking Thora’s spaniel. It’s a dead person.”
“Wh… Why are you showing it to me? Why didn’t you call someone?”
“The police? An ambulance? I don’t know? Anyone!”
“What’s the point? It’s not gonna bring him back to life.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me”
I feel like some context is necessary before I continue. Mat and I go way back. We both grew up here in Durham. Mat doesn’t go to my university; we just hang out a lot because this is the town we both still happen to live in. It’s a small town, and when you’ve been around for as long as we have, you get to know everyone and everything. Locally, Mat has a reputation for erratic behavior. As far as I’m concerned, it all traces back to this one Religious Studies lesson. We were about 14.
Mr Tilston was off ill so we had this supply teacher. He was a short, fat, middle-aged bloke who was shaped like a cube. I don’t use the word bloke lightly here. But that’s what he was. Mat was really misbehaving, causing havoc in the classroom, and everyone else was having a really good time enjoying the spectacle. This poor teacher had no idea how to keep Mat under control. Mat was running around the class, singing and shouting, and so there was this inadvertently carnivalesque atmosphere to the whole thing. The teacher was getting so worked up, shouting and balling, and his face kept getting redder and redder. I can remember being freaked out by how much the veins were popping out of his neck and head.
“SIT DOWN!!!” he kept bellowing, to absolutely no avail.
Mat kept on performing, and everyone else kept on laughing. Then all of a sudden, this teacher bloke hunched over and grabbed his arm. It was obvious to me what was happening, even at that tender age. I’d watched Holby City; I knew exactly what a heart attack looked like. The room went completely silent, except for Mat who hadn’t clocked what was going on, and was still messing around with one of the wall displays. Jenny Parks, who, with hindsight, was always pretty diligent, ran outside and started shouting for help. By the time Mrs. Johnston arrived Mat had noticed the suddenly funereal atmosphere and had gone very very pale. Before too long an ambulance came and took this poor supply teacher away. I can remember the scene really vividly. The paramedics were in these pea-green jumpsuits and they carried him away on this weird orange stretcher. I’ll always remember those colours; a blur of pea-green and tangerine. Anyway, by lunchtime news had gotten around school that this supply teacher bloke had died at the hospital. Mat was inconsolable. We tried to help, and to explain, but it was no use.
“It’s not your fault, it’s years worth of unhealthy living that leads to a heart attack, not one disruptive kid.”
Even the teachers backed us up. Instead of a detention for misbehavior, Mat got special counseling and all sorts, but after that, things were different. We all kind of floated along, as you do, but Mat was carrying this guilt that none of us felt. Even though we were just as complicit in whatever crime had been committed for laughing along. From that point onwards Mat was forever paranoid, assuming the worst in every situation. Having these fantasies about the worst-case scenario all of the time. If someone was late, it was because they’d been in an accident. Or if the phone signal died it was a terrorist attack. We did our best to deal with it, but we were young, and Mat became more and more isolated. People found it too strange to deal with and just lost touch. It’s weird, but I think I’m probably the only one of our old gang who still keeps in contact with Mat.
Anyway, it was clear to me that night in Fowler’s Wood that Mat was high on something, but I went along with the tall-tale anyway. We stood there looking at this bulging sleeping bag by the light of a mobile phone, and Mat told me there was no point in ringing the police, it wasn’t gonna bring this corpse back to life.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me?” I said as I edged closer to it. I knew Mat was being crazy, but it was dark and I’m not ashamed to say I was pretty scared. I grabbed a longish stick from the ground and started to poke the sleeping bag.
“What’s that gonna do? He’s not gonna wake up, he’s dead.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘he’?” I said quite flippantly.
I continued prodding until eventually I dislodged the balance of something and the bag slowly started to tip towards us. We both screamed and jumped backwards, just as a pile of garbage poured from a hole in the bag. Matt had run off, so I stood in solitary silence for a moment, trying to comprehend what had just happened, then, having seen sense, I approached the bag with confidence. I unzipped it to reveal a load of old rubbish.
“Mat” I shouted “it’s just some garbage. Someone’s been fly-tipping… in an admittedly quite creative way. There’s nothing to worry about”
Mat appeared from behind a tree and walked over to the pile of trash. We both started laughing, and before long we were heading back to town with a spring in our step.
“Well, I don’t know about you but I’m wide awake” I said.
“Yeah, me too. What time is it?” said Mat.
“It’s about 4am. I have to be up at 7, there’s no point in going home to bed.”
“There’s a party on those new flats near the footbridge. We could go there”
“How do you know?”
“It’s where I was before I came to find you”.
We made our way there and had to buzz about 6 times before someone let us through the gate. We climbed this massive flight of stairs, and all the way I’m thinking ‘there’s gonna be no one here, it’s 4:30 in the morning’, but as we climbed the stairs, a dull thudding noise from above us slowly turned out to be a noisy sound system blasting music. By the time we got to the top floor, low and behold, things were still in full swing. I lost Mat practically the second we walked through the door, but there were a couple of people I knew from lectures so it was okay. The music was a bit too loud and things were a bit too druggy for me, but I managed to entertain myself for a while. Nevertheless, after about half an hour, I was totally bored, and the temptation to leave took over. But before I could do that, I needed to locate Mat.
I looked around for a while, until eventually I found her out on the terrace. She was kneeling on the floor laughing pretty hard. It was that really infectious kind of laughter, manic but overpowering.
“What’s so funny?”
No response came, just more frantic laughter. Before long I was laughing too, I couldn’t help it. I was so tired, and things had been so tense earlier, I guess it was a release of some kind. The sun had started to rise and the sky was a familiar shade of orange. It’s quite a height out there on the terrace and the views are pretty amazing at the best of times, but with that morning sunrise foregrounded by the trees; the scene was overwhelming. There we both were, laughing our heads off at seemingly nothing; bathed in this blur of pea-green and tangerine.
But she was laughing a little bit too hard; and she was taking these long strained breaths. It was as if she was having trouble breathing. Then I caught her eye properly and there was something disturbing about the way she looked at me; there was this terror lurking behind the raucousness of her laughter. The tears streaming down her cheeks. And suddenly it made sense; she was in hysterics. I suddenly felt cold.
“Matilda. What’s wrong? What have you taken?”
I grabbed her by the shoulders and begged her to stop. She kept laughing and her breathing kept getting more strained. These long, shrill intakes of breath between fits of laughter. I looked around for a paper bag or something. I’m not trained to deal with people who are panicking. I was convinced it was some sort of overdose, or drug induced mania.
“Help” I shouted.
Naturally, nobody could hear me over the music. I shouted again and again. I ran back inside, but my friends had gone and it was so dark and loud, and everyone else was too pissed or stoned or whatever; no one could speak let alone help. Then I went back out on to the terrace, and saw her standing up, leaning on the balcony rail, looking over the side, still shrieking with laughter. I rushed over and she pointed down to the ground below, screaming.
And there I saw it, a speck on the ground a couple of hundred feet below us. The Northern Echo ran a short news story about it a couple of days later. In the early hours of May 25th, an as yet unidentified male in his early 20s jumped or fell some 100 feet from the balcony of a private residence near to Durham city centre. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Police are not treating the death as suspicious.
I haven’t seen Mat since.